A central theme was the challenge of the age old question of “who is the entrepreneur?”, which has been asked by economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and even the odd business academic for nearly three hundred years.
Whilst many think the term entrepreneur derives from the French, that fact is only half true. Indeed, it was Richard Cantillon – an Irish economist of French descent – who first coined the term in 1730 to describe someone who organizes and assumes the risk of a business in return for the profits.
Unfortunately, his ground breaking work recognising the important influence of this individual was largely forgotten over the next two centuries and a half as large corporations came to dominate economic and business thinking across the World.
In fact, the UK Parliament became so concerned about the diminishing impact of the small firm sector that it commissioned a seminal report in 1971, by John Bolton, which looked to understand those challenges restricting the role of entrepreneurial firms and develop policies to
A few years later, economists such as David Birch in the USA began to show that, contrary to popular thinking at the time, small firms were significant job creators in the economy.
Since then, various studies have shown that new businesses established by entrepreneurial individuals are major contributors to employment. For example, the Kauffman Foundation has shown time and time again that almost all new net job growth in the American economy has been created by firms less than five years old.
They also stimulate innovation, establish new markets and act as a competitive spur for existing businesses to increase their productivity.
In fact, the social media revolution – which has transformed the way we communicate and live our lives over the last decade – was not created by established multinationals but by young hungry entrepreneurial firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Paypal, Linkedin, AirBNB to name but a few?
And the growing interest in entrepreneurship is showing no signs of slowing down.
Earlier this month, the Centre for Entrepreneurship showed that business formation rates in the UK had reached another record high with a total of 657,790 new businesses started last year. That equates to an incredible 1800 new businesses being created every day in 2016.
More importantly, an increasing number of these new businesses are being established by young people who are educated, are without families or mortgages to tie them down and are not wedded to a career. Most importantly of all, they have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and display incredible drive and enthusiasm.
That is why it is important that universities play an increasing important part in supporting enterprise and developing more entrepreneurial students who could create the growth businesses of the future.
In 2008, a seminal report entitled “Developing Entrepreneurial Graduates” was published by NESTA and the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship.
In the foreword to this excellent work, Lord Karan Bilimoria – the founder of Cobra Beer – said that the UK’s competitiveness hinged on its ability to create business-ready graduates with entrepreneurial skills.
Yet, how many higher education institutions here in Wales can truly say that their students, whether they are studying engineering, nursing, accountancy or fine art, will leave with an experience of enterprise that will change the way they think about the World?
How many can make the claim that they will have helped to develop an enterprising and innovative graduate who will make a real difference to an organisation, whether it is one they work for as an employee or one they set up themselves?
We know the growing importance of entrepreneurship to an economy but Wales is, unfortunately, lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to new business creation. For example, whilst 93 new businesses were created for every ten thousand people in the UK in 2015, in Wales, only 60 businesses were established.
Given this, it is time our higher education institutions stepped up and provided not only the academic knowledge to our students but also new opportunities to develop entrepreneurial mindsets, behaviours and skills.
Indeed, as the 2008 report stated, these abilities that will help their own futures but will also make a significant contribution to the UK’s economy and to its global standing.
And with the world becoming a more uncertain place during the last twelve months and significant challenges on the way, this should be a priority for the Welsh economy over the next few years.